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29 July 2012


Hedingham Castle, Essex
Sunday 29th July 2012

This production has been around the country meeting with wind and rain at every turn, and unfortunately Essex was no exception.  The beautiful backdrop of Hedingham Castle was awash with an early downpour, but if it dampened the spirits of the enthusiastic cast they did not let on. 

The young Hamlet was excellently played by Michael Benz.  Leaving no ambiguity as to his mental state, he was entirely absorbing as the revenge-seeking prince.  Welcomingly fast-paced, his cerebral performance did not see him dwelling over long soliloquies but also never felt rushed, and was superbly accessible and full of intent.

In this small touring company all other actors doubled as the many other characters, and were a delight.  Carlyss Peer was a tender Ophelia, innocent and refreshing her performance was a stand-out highlight among a consummate cast.  Noteworthy too was Tom Lawrence, as a strong Horatio.  The gravedigger's scene was also particularly good.

With the addition of live music played by the performers, and a compact but versatile set, the production was a perfect accomplishment of high class touring theatre.

Ending with a dance upon the graves of the many fallen, we were left to jig off the raindrops on the long walk through the pitch black forest back to the car park - a feat of bad planning by the venue - perhaps a warning to bring torches and to leave umbrellas at home would have made for a more comfortable evening all round.

27 July 2012


The Laramie Project
Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 27th July 2012

With the BBC reporting this year that hate crime prosecutions in the UK are at a record high, this is a pertinent production for CTW to choose to end their season.  With such frequent brutality brought into our living rooms thanks to perpetual media coverage, a modern audience is tragically hardened to the statistics.  It is however a very specific and personal story that The Laramie Project, a play written by Moisés Kaufman and other members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project, seeks to tell, and in doing so it grasps the imagination of a potentially inveterate audience.

In 1998 the death of 21 year old Matthew Shepard in Laramie was international news.  The vicious murder of this openly gay student in a quiet Wyoming town, brought worldwide attention to the lack of hate crime laws in various US States.  Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, through various interviews and their own diary entries, devised the script where just eight performers take on the dozens of Laramie citizens, members of the project, friends and family of Matthew, and other involved parties. 

In CTW's production, the direction by Kelly McGibney contained influences of Brecht's epic theatre, emphasising the social injustice through the disassociation of the performers from naturalistic reality, allowing the content of the play to take centre stage.  By setting up the constantly present actors as blank canvases, dressed all the same in simple black, each was given the freedom to access the wide variety of characters through shifts in body language, simple items of costume or hand held props.  The multi-level staging, built by Dan Segeth, was sturdy and unobtrusive, providing just enough visual interest in a purposely bland set.  The lighting was simple but effective, although some of the pieces of music chosen to underscore poignant scenes were somewhat conspicuous; punchily lyrical rather than complementing the emotion, they often served as a distraction.

All eight performers were excellent, with well maintained accents and a clearly defined set of characters each.  There were moments of heart-wrenching poignancy delivered by lots of members of the cast, although particularly memorable were the speech by the doctor from the emergency room and Mr Shepard's final speech to the courtroom.   With such a wide variety of characters to portray, this production called for a particularly capable and committed cast, and this eight energetically succeeded.

In many ways Laramie is the main character, a typically American town it seems, and it is therefore an unusual play to choose to perform outside of America.  However, the issues addressed within the exploration of Matthew Shepard's town, life, friends, acquaintances and death are synonymous with hate crime across the world, no matter what the motivation.  If theatre - at any level - can get more people talking about these issues, surely it's value in society is proven.

14 July 2012


Richard III
Globe Theatre, London
Saturday 14th July 2012

Mark Rylance makes a welcome return to The Globe this season, for the first time since completing his post as Artistic Director in 2005.  In this duo of all-male productions incorporating "Original Practises", as well as playing the murderous King Rylance is also reprising his role as Olivia in Twelfth Night later in the year.  Having been through a difficult couple of weeks causing him to decide to pull out of his involvement with the Olympic Opening Ceremony, his first steps onto the stage on this Opening Night were appreciatively met with rapturous applause.  And he did not disappoint. 

Richard III is Shakespeare's second longest play with the protagonist addressing the audience even more than Hamlet, and Rylance's conspiratorial performance was pitched perfectly.  The dichotomy between Richard's sly words and the audiences knowledge of his actions and intentions was played with delicate comic timing and met with frequent peals of wry laughter.  These moments of wit only set to heighten the drama of the sudden mood shift, as the man who would be King dramatically disposes of all in his path.  Directed by Tim Carroll, this was a performance that delighted the appreciative audience into the longest curtain call of which I have ever been part.

A faultless supporting company across the board too.  In this all-male cast, the few female characters were particularly well done, with special note to Samuel Beckett's Queen Elizabeth, played with touching grace and motherly passion.  James Garnon's Duchess of York was also excellent, seemingly floating across the stage in his enormous dress.  Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham and Paul Chahidi as Hastings, and later Tyrell, were both strong and memorable performances.  The boys playing the young Princes were excellent, and had no trouble being heard in the daunting space against the lashing rain. 

With the production topped off with sumptuous costuming, complimentary live music, and culminating with a dance on the grave of the villainous King, this is a delightfully rewarding night in the Wooden O.

11 July 2012


Rent : School Edition
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 11th July

Jonathan Larson's controversial 90s musical Rent is an interesting choice for a theatre school of youngsters from age 11 to 18 to tackle.  Firstly, being a sung-through rock musical it is a challenge artistically, with some complex songs and multi-layered harmonies.  Also, despite the School Edition having toned down some of the language and displays of affection of the original, with a plot containing poverty, drugs, homelessness, anarchy, male and female homosexual relationships, cross-dressing and AIDS, it will have been an eye-opening study for the cast too.

Tomorrow's Talent have certainly got some exceptionally able students among their ranks, and this one night production gave them ample opportunity to shine.  The long show whipped by with constant high levels of energy and simple staging allowing scenes to flow quickly.  The stage was packed in the ensemble pieces, and each member of the company performed with style and power in some impressive group numbers. 

The cast of principals exuded confidence and presence without exception.  Sam Toland's rock guitarist Roger and Tara Divina's drug taking dancer Mimi were both strong performances, suiting the rock music well.  Their voices blended beautifully without losing power and they developed a believable and touching relationship.  Lesbian couple Maureen (Ashton Reed) and Joanne (Deanna Byron), both gave controlled portrayals together and separately, with Maureen's protest performance "Over the Moon" being played with real earnest.  Ollie Fox overcame some initial microphone problems with professionalism and gave a smooth performance as Collins, with heartfelt emotion during Angel's demise.  Drag Queen Angel was memorably portrayed by Bart Lambert in a sensitive interpretation of a lovable character.  Resisting any temptation to over-do it and descend into cliché, this was a subtle, intelligent and comfortable performance.  It was however Luke Higgins' Mark, the filmmaker and all round nice guy, who carried the show.  A performer in every sense, acting and reacting even when not in the focus of the scene, maintaining a strong, absorbed characterisation throughout but not compromising on a controlled vocal performance too, this was an accomplishment of all-round skill.

Gavin Wilkinson, principal of the school and director of the show, certainly knows how to get the best out of these talented young people.  From the smallest ensemble member to each of the principal cast, the company maintained high levels of professionalism and energy, and their teacher seemed justly proud of their achievement.  An entirely different but equally demanding challenge faces the school next year with the legendary show Miss Saigon - the heat is on.

10 July 2012


Sweeney Todd
Chichester Festival Production, West End Revival
Adelphi Theatre, London
10th July 2012

My first reprise of the year, and this immaculate show has little room for improvement, being as it is "a complete masterclass in dramatic musical theatre", as I said in my original review back in March.

If anything the superlative cast have relaxed further into their roles, performing this Sondheim masterpiece with even more flair, drama and dark humour.  A different perspective this time brought home the fact that a good percentage of the audience are not getting much of a view of the very high minstrels gallery that worked so well in Chichester.  With such engaging central performances however, it would do very little to detract from the enjoyment of the show.

The major change this month is the new Pirelli, covering the short but pivotal cameo role for just a few weeks.  Jason Manford's untrained but proven operatic tones suit Pirelli wonderfully, and he grasps the nuances of the character well.  A wavering speaking accent at times, but an assured overall performance from this comedian in his first musical theatre role.

I cannot praise Jonathan Kent's pitch-perfect production enough.  Simply unmissable theatre, superbly staged, with two lead performers at the very top of their game.  Spellbinding.

09 July 2012


The Last of the Haussmans
Lyttelton Theatre, London
Monday 9th July 2012

Playwright Stephen Beresford's debut work explores the coming together of a family of loving but distant dysfunctionals.  Libby and Nick, children of the sixties, are presided over by their matriarchal hippy mother, Judy, as we watch their final weeks together.  

Set in a beautifully realised home on the Devon coast, the staging is immaculate.  The enormous house, source of contention in the family as they fruitlessly bicker over inheritance, dominates the stage.  Revolving to suit the scene, the large windows allow us to see indoors while the action is outdoors, and vice versa, and even turn with a character's journey as they walk through the house.  Furnished to suggest the disrepair and clutter that summonsed the "worse than the Stasi" Resident's Association, each item had been carefully selected and fitted immaculately with the family. 

The cast of characters are all wonderfully rounded and developed personalities, performed with exceptional skill.  Julie Walters as Judy is a masterclass.  Rambling around the stage with bare feet and waist-long grey hair, she embodies the extreme caricature of Judy's hippy background with depth and precision.  A performance as engaging in silence as when she is energetically shouting down her family's interfering questions.  However it is Helen McCrory as Libby and Rory Kinnear as Nick who between them carry the show.  Libby's emotional journey is the most vacillating, and McCrory consistently portrays every level of emotion of the only convincingly realistic character in the play.  Nick is a rather more cliché "victim" of his wayward upbringing, but Kinnear sensitively tackles the character, delivering some of the best lines of the night with a wry humour, but also a touching empathy in the reminiscent moments.

Considering the play lasted for two and three quarter hours very little seemed to happen.  All the characters were given plenty of opportunity to develop, but very little reason to do so.  The writing pieced together some lovely scenes and was full of witty humour and intelligently composed speeches, but once the characters were so convincingly introduced the progression of the plot became fairly predictable.  Such subject matter and such characters deserved to tell a more cerebral tale.  However, this production is polished to a shine and is worth watching for the simply absorbing performances from the whole cast.

08 July 2012


Work in Progress
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Sunday 8th July 2012

This young stand-up comedian has had a brilliant couple of years, rising to fame via various TV appearances, and securing his own BBC One series shown earlier this year. 

Preparing for a new tour to begin in the Autumn, this gig is designed to try out some new material before embarking on venues "somewhat larger than the Civic Theatre in Chelmsford", to quote Bridges himself.  He warned that the evening may not, therefore, live up to the standards we would otherwise expect while he ascertains what works and what doesn't.

Chelmsford's Civic Theatre has become a popular venue for Work in Progress comedy gigs, and it seems all comedian's have a different style.  Jimmy Carr recently had his new material learnt off pat, Lee Evans worked from scraps of paper, thrown over his shoulder when he didn't receive his desired reaction. 

Kevin Bridges' more relaxed approach began strongly with some very funny anecdotal and observational sections early in the evening, which he developed and ran with to the audience's loud appreciation.  Without enough new material to fill an hour however, the evening did peter off towards it's conclusion.

It was a promising start though, and with plenty of time yet before his full-scale tour begins, it is sure to be an autumnal hit.